Flyfishing began in the middle ages. It seems likely that some frustrated angler watched as hundreds trout attacked the swarms of aquatic insects emerging from the water to take flight. During such times, modern trout lock in on these insects and eshew all types of other tasty delicacies like crickets and even large worms. It's easy to imagine an ancient angler, frustrated by a swarm of wildly active trout and an empty creel, hatching the idea of imitating the insects that the trout were gobbling down.
How to accomplish the imitation of insects floating on the surface of a stream is another matter entirely. Since the insects - flies weight next to nothing, they would be nearly impossible to cast. Consider how far you could throw a fly. Now imagine a fly placed on the line of a typical fishing rod, you still have no weight to throw. The innovation of our ancient fisherman was to place the weight in a line that would float. If the line is heavy enough to throw, the fly will follow. Since a thick and heavy line would probably scare fish, you need to separate the line from the fly by way of a thinner line, the leader. It is still done this way today and this is the foundation of all modern flyfishing. Rather than use a line of woven horsehair greased with pig fat, we use slightly more refined, or at least better smelling, equipment.
Modern flyfishing has progressed to include lines that float, sink, and do both at the same time. Flyfishermen now pursue every species of gamefish but flyfishing is different from all other forms of fishing because the line provides the impetus to the lure or fly rather than the other way around. In flyfishing, the line is cast and the fly follows. This fact makes it a bit trickier to learn, but it is a very enjoyable and productive way to catch fish.
As you might imagine, flyfishing requires some specialized equipment. A thick floating line (usually), a long limber rod, a strange reel, and flies - artificial ones with hooks. The other equipment such as a vest and waders are common to all types of fishing. For local fishing, a floating line will serve more than 95% of you fishing needs and the discussion here will be limited to fishing with this type of line. As for the best fly rod for local waters, this is a little more difficult to determine. Rivers like the James, Jackson, and Maury are best fished with long rods from 81/2 to 9 feet in length. For mountain streams, shorter rods are preferred by many anglers. If you can choose just one rod for our local waters, a rod of about 8 1/2 feet is a good compromise.
Rods are matched to the weight of the fly line and lines are given a simple numerical rating according to their weight. Heavy lines such as those of 9-12 weights are usually used for fishing in the ocean where high winds are common. Light lines of 2-3 weight are used in windless conditions where the presentation of the fly is critical to catching fish. In this area, lines of 4-6 are the most commonly used. If you plan to purchase a line for fishing in this area, look for one with a designation like WF5F (weight forward, rating 5, floating). The 5 can be replaced by the weight of your choosing. Weight forward simply means that the greatest weight is in the front end of the line. This type of line is much easier to cast than a line that is the same weight throughout (level).
If you are buying a 5-weight line, you should match the rest of your equipment to that weight. Purchase a tapered monofilament leader of 7-10 feet and connect it to the end of the fly line. Most lines are marked so that you can easily find the leader end. The other end of the line will be tied to dacron or kevlar "backing." This thin woven line is wound onto the reel so that when you catch a big fish that pulls out your 100 feet of fly line, you still have something connecting you to the fish.
Rods will clearly show their line ratings and should be rated for the line you choose. Graphite is the material of choice for fly rods. Whippy fly rods are as difficult to cast as stiff ones. Moderate actions are best for beginners. If budget is an important consideration, it often is, be sure you get a good line and rod. High priced reels are great tools but their features don't often come into play with the smaller fish of the Shenadoah Valley. If you are planning a trip to Alaska, get a good reel too.
The flies you choose are very important to your success but will depend on the particular species you will be trying to catch. Specific flies will be mentioned later but any fly you choose should be durable. Check the fly to make sure that it is well tied. Look at the head of the fly - the portion next to the eye of the hook - to make sure that there are no loose threads or loose wraps of thread. If possible, get someone at a local flyfishing shop to help you make all these decisions about flies and the rest of your equipment.
The last piece of essential equipment is a pair of sunglasses. These do more than help you see fish, they protect your eyes from hooks traveling at tremendous speeds. Make sure you wear a pair when you fish and practice casting.
Casting a line is one of the most enjoyable parts of flyfishing and it really is easy when you get the hang of it. After you've assembled your equipment and the line is on your reel, thread the end of the line through the guides of your rod and pull out 15 feet of line beyond the rod tip (that's about 24 feet including your leader). Tie a bit of yarn or an old fly (break off the bend of the hook) to the end of your leader so that you can see where it falls and start practicing casting. It is better to try this on a lawn than in the middle of a trout stream, use that time for fishing.
Start by learning the forward cast then the back cast. This is the opposite of the way you will do it on the stream but when you learn the feel of a forward cast, the back cast will be obvious. Let the line start on the ground behind you. You know you've got it right when the line and fly straighten out in front of you at waist level then fall quietly to the ground. When you've mastered 15 feet of line, move on to 20, then 25.
For the back cast, start with 15 feet of line on the ground straight in front of you. Pull the line back sharply. When the line straightens out behind you, begin your forward cast. Don't worry if every cast isn't perfect, this will give you something to work on for the next 80 years. There are a number of excellent books and videos on casting that are listed at the end of this section. They will be much more helpful than this short introduction.